A surprising link …
The history of margarine
In the early 1920’s a large food manufacturing company in the United States of America was looking for a way to use a surplus of cottonseed oil. They discussed the issue with a chemist who had been chatting to a colleague in France, who had discovered a way to turn a liquid oil into a solid substance. They had stumbled upon a process called hydrogenation, which uses hydrogen atoms, in the presence of a metal, to turn liquid oil into a solid substance.
Unfortunately the process of hydrogenation turned the oil into a very hard mixture, so it wasn’t very easy to use. They decided to partially hydrogenate the oil, so that the resultant product was much softer – it was actually spreadable! Partial hydrogenation is the process that is still used today to turn liquid oils into a soft and spreadable substance.
The manufacturer of this new, innovative product was able to tell consumers that it was a very good product, as it was made from vegetable oil, which is a polyunsaturated fat. They advised people to use this product instead of butter, as the idea that saturated fat was responsible for heart disease was just becoming popular.
A very important fact was left out….
The manufacturers were interested in producing another product. They weren’t interested in finding out whether this product was really a healthier choice than butter. They therefore didn’t care about the fact that polyunsaturated fats don’t like to be exposed to light, heat and oxygen.
If they cared, they would have had to take great care in extracting the oil from the seeds, eliminating harsh light, heat and oxygen which would have been much more expensive than simply using harsh chemicals to extract the oil. After all, the customers didn’t know that these were delicate fats, easily damaged when exposed to the elements. So they didn’t tell anyone.
Moreover, the complexity of the chemistry of fats and oils meant that it was not yet known exactly what this type of processing would do to the structure of the fat molecules. They were changing the structure of the fat molecule, to make a new, harder substance. Unfortunately, they had unwittingly created a new type of fat, called a trans fat.
Time exposed the danger of trans fats
It was during the 1970’s that researchers began to look at processed oils in a new way, and discovered that they weren’t healthy at all. They found that trans fats were very dangerous to our health and influenced our well being at the cellular level. These damaged fats didn’t know how to behave in the cell membrane, where good fats should be present to optimize the functioning of the cell.
Cell membranes are responsible for getting oxygen and nutrients into the cell to create energy, and help to remove toxins from inside the cell. Cell membranes need to be flexible and permeable to perform this function properly. The introduction of trans fats into the cell membrane meant that the cell membrane was battling to perform its duties. This meant that people consuming products that contained trans fats were damaging their health, at the cellular level.
Unfortunately it has taken nearly 40 years for the information about trans fats to reach the public. And there are many people who still don’t know about they damage they are inflicting on their cells when they consume foods that contain these damaged fats.
What has happened to this knowledge?
Denmark was the first country to stand up and declare war on trans fats in 2003. New York followed in 2007 by banning trans fats from restaurants. The European Union has examined the issue, but made no public stand, while Australia has also remained relatively silent on this important matter. At this point in time, Denmark is the only country in the world to have dealt with trans fats in a meaningful way.
It is up to the unsuspecting consumer to ask questions about the amount of trans fats in processed foods. Unless you live in Denmark, or New York City, you will be exposed to trans fats when you consume foods that are processed, or when eating in restaurants.
A history of how fish oil became popular
Supplementing with fish oil became a popular decision about a decade ago, because researchers discovered, that certain groups of people, especially those who follow a Mediterranean diet, are healthier than those who don’t. The assumption was that their diets, which contained a lot of fish (maybe up to three times a week) was helping them stay healthier for longer. Manufacturers of supplements decided that it would be a good idea to produce a product that provided the benefits of fish, without the hassle of finding, preparing and eating fish.
Fish oil is also sensitive to damage from the elements
Fish oil falls into the category of an Omega 3 polyunsaturated fat. It is therefore also very sensitive to damage caused through exposure to light, heat and oxygen. In fact, fish oil is 25 times more sensitive to this kind of damage than the plant forms of Omega 3 are. This is simply due to the differences between the molecular structure of fish oil and the plant forms of Omega 3.
Furthermore, fish swim around in polluted seas. Pollution in the ocean is a major concern for fish oil manufacturers. The toxins that exist in the ocean are extremely hazardous to our health. And consumers are aware of the dangers of heavy metals, dioxins and PCB’s, which are all present in our oceans, and therefore in our fish. Therefore, fish oil manufacturers have to remove most of these toxins, so as to tell consumers that their products are free of these contaminants.
Claims of purified fish oil makes consumers feel safe
This is where the story gets really interesting. To remove most of the heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins, known cancer-causing compounds, from the fish oil, manufacturers have to heat the oil. When they heat the oil they can evaporate most of the toxins out of the oil. But, in the process of heating the fish oil, they are creating toxic fat molecules.
Knowing that the fish oil they are using is purified, comforts consumers, and this is a selling point used by fish oil manufacturers. They are telling the consumer that their products contain very little toxins, but they are excluding the explanation of how they got rid of the toxins! And what the result of this purifying process is. That haven’t told the consumer that heating the fish oil is creating damaged fat molecules, like trans fats, which lead to toxicity and aging.
Unfortunately, the presence of trans fats in fish oil is not the only piece of bad news. Other damaged fats, like polymerized, cyclised and cross-linked fats are present too. The only damaged fats we know a lot about are trans fats. These other damaged fats have not been researched in any depth yet, although there is some evidence to suggest that they are much more damaging than trans fats are.
Margarine and fish oil – the similarities
The general public is now aware of the fact that polyunsaturated fats, also called Essential Fatty Acids or EFA’s, are essential for optimal physical and mental health. Although most people have focused on Omega 3, in the form of flax or fish oil, the knowledge of the importance of the Essential Fatty Acids has become much more wide-spread.
Unfortunately, people have not been told the whole story about these critical fats. Advising people about their benefits, and leaving out the part about how sensitive to damage they are, is leaving out a very important part of the story. The average consumer has been unaware of the damaging effects that inexpensive and careless manufacturing processes cause to these delicate nutrients.
It has taken decades for the truth about margarine to reach the general public. Many people are appalled when they realize that they have unwittingly been consuming a product which they were led to believe was healthy, but in fact contains damaging trans fats. In the same way, people are consuming fish oil, believing that they are only consuming beneficial ingredients. They are not aware of what else may be hiding in their supplement.
Half the truth is a whole lie
In the last couple of years margarine has been exposed as being a ‘plastic’ food and knowledgeable consumers are going back to good old-fashioned butter. People are also becoming aware that other processed foods contain trans fats. Unfortunately, the whole fish oil story may take decades to find its way to the general public. People will then realize that once again they were sold on half the story. And the margarine myth will join the fish oil myth.
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Discussion with Udo Erasmus via E-mail 22 April 2010.